Iron Man 2


It seems a little strange to have a sequel in the first phase of the MCU before other heroes’ first film. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. return in Iron Man 2 to bring back that snarky Stark personality that won over the country in Iron Man. The first film was definitely a hit, but the sequel is not so solid.

The good thing about Iron Man 2 is the integration and development of S.H.I.E.L.D’s presence in the MCU. Clark Gregg reprises his role as the charismatic Agent Phil Coulson, this time joined by Director of SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and undercover agent Natasha Romanoff, alias Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). SHIELD’s almost ever-present involvement is crucial for pacing the multi-movie arc leading to the assembly of the Avengers; otherwise, they’re just a bunch of superhero films. What tickles me most about Iron Man 2 is that while Stark always feels that he’s in control, SHIELD has been infiltrating his life without his knowledge. Granted, he has been preoccupied with saving his life, but it’s still amusing.

Another good thing about the film is the struggle Stark has with making his father proud of him. He genuinely believes that his father was, at best, apathetic or, at worst, ashamed of him. While going through many of his father’s personal items, he sees a video where his father tells Stark that everything he has built has been for him, that he loved him. It’s a touching moment; though, it’s overshadowed by much of the action in the film. A scene like this is a rare glimpse into the man behind the persona.

Other than that, Iron Man 2 does not dazzle like its predecessor. Stark’s increasingly pressing mission to save his life from the contaminating arc reactors is compelling, but his spiral to immaturity and neglect is off-putting. It does not come across as a man who is more and more aware of his mortality; rather, it feels like his all too familiar Stark antics. It’s hard to feel sympathetic  for Stark. It’s written more for show and laughs than it is for a real exploration of Stark’s character. Add in an uninteresting villain, and you’ve got a pretty generic superhero film. Iron Man 2 provides a little dip halfway through Phase 1 of the MCU, which thankfully climbs back up with the subsequent films.

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012) is an epic superhero film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is an origins story, following the events of S.H.I.E.L.D to develop The Avengers Initiative, which leads to the coming together of The Avengers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and is the third-highest-grossing film, over $1 billion.

The expectations for the film were nothing shy of brilliant once Joss Whedon was announced as director for The Avengers. An avid comic book fan and an amazing writer, the coming together of multiple superheroes into one film was in very good hands. Whedon has commented on The Avengers as a group, saying: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family.” He delves deeply into that sentiment in the film, exploring the conflicts between strong personalities and haughty egos. Whedon is well-known for fleshing out characters, and that’s the most interesting part of this film. He makes the joining forces of these various superheroes feel real and believable. Most of the film is set up as scenes with pairs of characters, which gives the actors a chance to perform with different personalities as well as the audience the chance to see the characters interact with everyone. Examples of this include: 1) when Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) meeting with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in India to convince him to answer S.H.I.E.L.D’s call for help or 2) when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fight each other to (try to) show their dominance over the other. These scenes are incredible because they show a side to the characters that aren’t seen very often in these characters’ solo films. Tony Stark is always in charge in his films, but now he has to work together with others. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate soldier but has to come to terms with the fact that everybody he’s ever known or cared for is dead and learn to interact with people “of the future”. The way Whedon creates these scenes is insightful, as it deconstructs the illusion that groups of superheroes, like The Avengers or the Justice League, would automatically come together in selflessness for the greater good. Egos must be thrown aside (in Stark’s case) and personal conflicts must be embraced (in Banner’s case) in order to work together. The basic goal for these scenes is for Whedon to show the journey for the characters to build trust, for trust will be the most important force linking their chain together.

Another classic Whedonism found in The Avengers is the witty banter and clever writing. The film’s popularity and high praise has a lot to do with the writing, elevating the “superhero genre” up to match various other genres in terms of quality and artistry.
On the topic of classic Whedonisms, Black Widow’s character must be discussed. Whedon has created a myriad of strong female characters, including Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Echo in Dollhouse (Eliza Dushku), and Zoe Washburn from Firefly (Gina Torres). He promotes and advocates for strong women in media, and he delivers yet again with Black Widow. Her introduction scene has her tied to a chair, being interrogated by Russian criminals. She appears to be in a weak and helpless position, as if she were captured and at their mercy. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls the Russian criminals and asks to speak to Romanoff. She talks to him like he’s interrupting her interrogation, not that she’s helpless and in need of saving. He urges her to come in, saying it’s urgent, and she consents. Then, she shows the audience that she was always in control of the situation. She begins a fight, disables the Russian criminals, and walks out calmly, after picking up her heels. This is classic Joss Whedon, who sets up scenes with a particular female stereotype and destroys it right then and there. A classic example is the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A high school boy is taking what appears to be a timid high school girl somewhere private after school hours. She’s hesitant and timid. Whedon sets up that scene as the high school blonde girl who gets herself in a powerless situation, but the high school girl turns out to be Darla (Julie Benz), a vampire who was in fact seducing the high school boy. Black Widow and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are incredibly strong women who are perfectly capable and in control of their situations. Hill does follow orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but she basically runs the organization and makes things happen. Romanoff, like Darla in Buffy, plays around with female stereotypes in an incredible scene with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film’s big bad and adopted brother to Thor. She’s speaking with Loki, and he begins to simmer in his masculine intimidation, picking apart her intentions as she buckles under the harshness of his words. In his hubris, he lets slip his next move. Immediately, Romanoff resumes her strong posture and stoic face and we realize that she was playing him the entire time. Whedon keeps destroying female stereotypes. With so many modern reboots in popular franchises, there are attempts to modernize female characters who were previously stuck in antiquated female stereotypes, like Uhura in Star Trek. In J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009, the entire cast got a jumpstart, including Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who at times was the catalyst for the plot continuing forward. Unfortunately, half way through the film, Uhura was tossed aside as merely a romantic interest for Spock (Zachary Quinto). While there are teases and hints at something between Romanoff and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in The Avengers, Romanoff’s character place in the group is never diminished or looked down upon. As Johansson has said about her role in The Avengers, she always felt like one of the guys, not the only woman in a group of guys.
Whedon’s vision for The Avengers is a masterful balance of character development and excitement. He blends together a modern realization of his characters with clever writing and a smooth and realistic filming style. He succeeded in bringing together a group of ultra-strong personalities, both in character and in person, while also elevating the “superhero genre” up to challenge other “respected” genres. The sequel, which is will be released in 2015, will no doubt be just as exciting and successful.

Her


“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.” — Amy

“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” — Samantha

Her (2013) is a Spike Jonze love story starring Joaquin Phoenix. Set in Los Angeles in the future, Her is a story about lonely Theodore (Phoenix) who spends his time at his letter writing job, playing video games at home, and using his futuristic smart phone. The new OS1 is released, boasting that it is the first artificial intelligent operating system. Theodore purchases it, decides to give his OS a female identity, and begins to interact and bond with his OS: Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is an entity of great intelligence, but Theodore is surprised by her sensitivity and her capacity for emotion. They create a very intimate bond with each other and eventually fall in love. While he and Samantha are “dating”, Theodore is finalizing his divorce with Catherine (Roony Mara), his childhood sweetheart, and he finds solace and comfort with his friend Amy (Amy Adams). He is both excited and doubtful about his relationship with Samantha. He’s never felt so close to someone, but is Samantha actually “someone”?

While Her is a love story, the film is also a masked science-fiction commentary. Her is cautionary tale about smart phones and the problematic over-reliance and over-consumption of technology in general. As Theodore commutes home from work, he has his earphone device continuously in his ear, listening to e-mails read aloud to him, checking up on constantly updated news, etc. The other commuters around him also are constantly engaged in their smart devices that you never see people interacting with each other. It’s hard to think that technology could actually become more ingrained into daily life than it already is, but Her offers up a possibility for what may happen if mankind continues down the road it is currently on. I, myself, felt the impact of its message when the film ended: I attended a Oscar Movie Showcase in Chicago but went by myself; when the film ended, I immediately reached for my phone so I could talk about the film with a friend, but I felt awkward going straight for my phone.

Her is a beautifully artistic film. It’s so refreshing to see a film that steps outside the usual reservations. Her is a colorful film, saturated in bright warm colors, primary colors, oranges, reds, cyan. Theodore almost always wears an orange shirt. It seemed that the city and all its settings were sleek and patterned, a reflection of the modernity of technology and this advanced operating system. I love the idea of a future world improving itself just as technology improves itself. Los Angeles in Her is much bigger, but it is also much cleaner and more glistening than it is today. The wardrobe also played an interesting part in the film’s aesthetic. While set in the future, the style was vintage, evident by all the high-waisted pants. It’s a strange juxtaposition: cutting-edge, forward-thinking technology with classic and reinvented style. I think it contributes to the romanticism of the story — adorning the unconventional love story with color and patterns and paradoxes.

Joaquin Phoenix performs beautifully in Her. I say he was robbed of an Academy Award nomination, because he truly embodied the sweet and sensitive Theodore. Theodore has many flaws, but he is a sincere and earnest man, who found love and doesn’t want to give it up. He wants to believe in love and wants to lose himself in the comfort of partnership. Phoenix expresses these qualities so tenderly. When doubtful, he speaks with a hesitant honesty, and when he is happy, he laughs an unrestrained and liberated laugh. I connected very much to Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore; I connected with him because he was a real person, a man whose goals and ambitions I understood.

Her is a gorgeous film, challenging us to redefine what love is. Among a backdrop of beautiful and bright colors, sleek patterns, and Arcade Fire’s fantastic score, Joaquin Phoenix shows us what it’s like to fall in love — an honest look: with both the good and the bad. Love with an operating system can very well be a metaphor for any unconventional relationship (i.e. a gay relationship, polyamory, etc), something real and beautiful but difficult to embrace among social pressures — but Amy’s above quote is the answer to any doubt or restraint: “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”